Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.14

Mary Carruthers, The Craft of Thought. Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1998.  Pp. 399.  ISBN 0-521-58232-6.  $59.95.  

Reviewed by Eugene Vance, University of Washington (
Word count: 4167 words

[[from TMR 00.01.07]]

One advantage of an electronic journal is that it can publish more than one review of books which relate to more than one discipline or field. This book was previously reviewed by Jocelyn Penny Small from the point of view of a classicist who claims (but does not show) that she is well-versed in modern cognitive theory, and therefore knowledgeable about "how memory works." I will leave it to classicists and modern cognitive scientists to judge whether Small speaks for them satisfactorily or not, and I shall attempt to address The Craft of Thought on its own terms: as a study of rhetoric (classical and medieval) as a foundation for meditative vision in medieval culture.

This book is a successor to Carruthers's (MC) The Book of Memory and is another wide-ranging study relating the spiritual, literary and artistic practices of medieval culture to an unbroken meditative tradition extending back to patristic and late classical culture. MC deals with the ways mental images serve the cognitive life of the soul as, together with the body, it relates not to itself or to a world of things or people, but to God. This is not a book about the history of psychological theory, nor is it the work of an art historian; however, as its copious bibliography shows, it does benefit from the resourcefulness of recent scholarship in these fields devoted to Late Antique and Early Christian cultures.

The omnibus title announces quite clearly the concerns of this book. The only keyword missing there is "memory," which should be taken in the exalted sense that Christian platonists gave to that term. In this context memory is a faculty of the soul that has nothing to do with recalling things that have occurred in the past. The goal of memory -- which Augustine conceived as the "first person" of the trinitarian human soul (the second and third being intellect and will) -- is to remember what is ontologically, and not chronologically, prior to our present being in the world. It is through the proper exercise of memory that the timeless being of God becomes present in time to humanity, and the remembrance of God may be achieved only by careful practice, an "orthopraxis [which] emphasizes a set of experiences and techniques, conceived as a 'way' to be followed, leading one to relive the founder's path to enlightenment." (1) Memory, in the meditative technique of early Christianity, must remain oriented toward an eschaton, a future not in time but at the end of time.

The premises of MC's subject matter are diametrically opposed to those of Freud, whose goal was to devise a very different orthopraxis for reconnecting our consciousness with troublesome experiences of early childhood that lie buried but not inert in the unconscious. They probably have little to do with "memory" as a concern of modern cognitive sciences, which is high among Small's fields of expertise, according to Small. The Freudian unconscious itself is the result of evolution and formed by drives that have emerged with human phylogeny; the Christian Platonic model of memory is based on a very different ontology. That the medieval monks and contemplatives that MC deals with should consistently evoke the process of remembering the sacred as a "craft" properly reflects the artisan's humble but laudable concern to make things well or to perform services that are fitting and true, and their insistence on the virtues of true spiritual craftsmanship recalls the constant appeals of Plato to the skills of carpenters, ship-captains and physicians as analogues to the philosopher's high purpose of building of arguments that will enable us to discover and contemplate the truth of forms. For medieval monastic culture, meditation, and not rational argument, is the path to proper remembrance. And for monks as for artisans, the notion of "craft" implies the proper use of the body as well as a craftiness of mind. So, this is a book about meditation as a "craft" that presupposes the mastery of all of the mind's "tools" that are appropriate to the soul's own special vocation, which is to employ proper books, "places" and buildings, and images (all of which involve as well the participation of a pure and well trained body) in the quest to know God. This book is not easy to summarize in a review because its strengths lie in its vast assemblage of specific details and practical observations relating to a culture lying at the core of the Western spiritual tradition, as that culture is represented by a number of important monastic and contemplative figures, many of whom are remote from the star-system of the modern university syllabus.

By emphasizing "rhetoric" as a source of method for proper meditation, MC means something quite different from both the Ciceronian and modern senses of that term, which deal mainly with public persuasion in forensic trials and in politics. The rhetoric of the monks and contemplatives deals privately with the soul's ongoing conversion and reversion to God. For Augustine the converted rhetorician and preacher, the material goals of Ciceronian rhetoric were vain, and he complains in his De catechizandis rudibus that even the sound of his own voice while preaching makes him feel sick. As a rhetorician of the soul's inner court, Augustine "converted" the Ciceronian technique of "invention" into a primary mode of spiritual understanding that would have left his master Cicero himself cold, and the palace that he wants to reach is not the imperial palace of Milan but the palace of memory in the human soul where God's presence resides. MC makes clear that, just as the logician and rhetoricians use objective or public "places" to invent persuasive arguments, the spiritual rhetorician needs in tensely private "places," including physical places (cells, bedrooms, gardens) as a resource for opening the human memory to the presence of God: "Some type of locational structure is a prerequisite for any inventive thinking at all." (12) MC evokes (14-24) in considerable detail, therefore, the privilege accorded to architecture in early Christian and medieval monastic culture as a metaphor for the construction of spiritual understanding. So too, the constellations form a "stellar inventory," a "sky map" that allows humans to locate themselves, and to make stories that are analogues of their voyage toward the memory of a "beginning" or "principal". (27)

The memory needs to have not only devices and places to orient itself, it must also bring order to the "things" that are suitable to its spiritual task. Since the soul itself is spiritual, the faculty of memory itself must be carefully remembered, as Augustine made clear in bk. 10 of the Confessions. However, as Augustine insisted in the De trinitate, the goal of meditative psychology is not to focus on the soul's self-knowledge, as it commonly was for the Romantics' quest for the truth of subjectivity, rather, to remember God as the being in whose image the human soul was first made. In order to illustrate by a profane analogy the archetypal and communal ends of medieval mnemotechnique, MC points to the Vietnam and Lincoln memorials as modern locations whose organization are propitious to a search for shared experience of higher meaning. "A memory, by its very nature, requires a remembering mind: it cannot be abstracted from times and places and people." (40) MC's allusions to American civic monuments are interesting (only in the short run) analogies to the medieval martyrium and pilgrim site as a places for remembering a human ordeal, whose prototype was Christ's sacrifice, as the embodiment of individual participation in salvation history (40-44). It would have been opportune as well to compare the invention of medieval shrines with the story of the extraordinary lengths that the photographer Joe Rosenthal went to "craft" his famous and moving photograph of Iwo Jima, considered by most as Americans (including those Supreme Court justices who wanted to make flag-burning illegal) as part of their sacred history, with the fabrication of medieval martyrologies and reliquaries. The point is that collective memory lives by stories whose truth-value, like those of visual images, lies not in the mimetic (however "realistic" they might be) but in their exemplarity.

Thus, in chapter 1, MC illustrates evokes the complex ways in which specific monuments of early Christian culture drew upon both classical rhetoric and techniques of mnemonic narratives about pagan gods and heroes to invent the new Christian truths, giving rise to a cultural palimpsest in which the old remains implicitly visible in the new, yet is evoked there in order to be forgotten. As the "foundational author of the Roman curriculum" Virgil needed to be remembered and forgotten (57), and it is well known that Augustine's Confessions 8.11 is to a large extent an anti-Aenead. His forgetting that epic poem, whose stories of lust and passion had beguiled Augustine as a schoolboy, is just as important as Augustine's forgetting of his dalliances with past mistresses, is indispensable to his reversion to Scripture and to God. Such is what MC calls the "construction of public 'forgetting': overlay and remapping." (54) So too, she says, the use of Christian monuments was both an exercise of remembering and forgetting. "It has been said of the eastern Mediterranean in the fourth century that it featured a war of processions." (55) Processions are "images moving within locations, locations spaced distinctly apart and in a clear relationship to one another ... Participant and audience together make up these processions, and remember them viscerally, the way we remember how to ride a bicycle or how to dance. Such knowledge cannot really be obliterated: it can, however, be relocated." (55) MC develops the notion of Christian "forgetting" more amply in the discussion of John Cassian that will follow in chapter 2 (88-98).

As one might guess from my comments on chapter 1, this book is made up of long chapters that are like mosaics composed from tesserae garnered from MC's excursions into an unusual variety of very old books, churches, cities. One cannot miss in her writing a personal presence an authorial "I" or "we" that often rises to the surface of her scholarly prose. As readers we are almost in a classroom -- one nicely free from conventional departmental and disciplinary boundaries that can often cramp the modern study of the Humanities. As a reader, "I" welcome this intellectual freedom.

If chapter 1 deals with cognitive issues relating to ecclesiastical culture in a broad sense, chapter 2 deals with the tenets of a more explicitly monastic culture, in which the very practical problems of "remembering" God imply skills analogous to those of craftsmen who use ladders, hoists and cranes, who put things together and transport them, or who grow and grind grains in the mind's mills. She begins by dealing with the rhetorical dimensions of the art of memory, particularly as it is oriented toward a transcendental world as its "future". Such traditional Ciceronian concepts as copia and brevitas are no longer considerations of a persuasive style, but mnemotechnic resources deployed to convert the soul to God. When MC deals with different kinds of remembering (e.g., memoria ad verbum vs. memoria rerum, 64-65), I found the discussion somewhat truncated, and some of the distinctions at times difficult to pin down.

In the discussion of "remembering the future," MC describes "remembering" as a notion of "mindfulness" regarding the prospect of returning to heaven: "The trope lies as a foundation of Augustine's City of God; it is a fundamental model of the monk's life." (65) At the core of the chapter is a study of John Cassian's Conferences, taken as an illustration of monastic meditation. MC makes it clear that her subject cannot be reduced to a study of the soul's "faculties," because in meditation (as in Freud's topology of the mind) "the faculties can't be separated out from the seamless process of thinking -- but the vocabulary and form of scholastic analysis militate against this and in favor of distinctions." (70) MC makes some penetrating comments on the use of images in Cassian's meditative process. Images are neither mimetic, nor even semiotic: "As the 'places' of the 'way,' images stood as the localizations or nodes of thought, what keeps thinking from being merely 'noise,' and structures it inventively." I gather, then, that tropologically speaking, the loci of places are metonymic. MC's several elaborations of the rhetorical term ductus are fecund, since the term applies not merely to the flow of discourse, but to the flow of processions and to the paths of the mind as it turns to God. It follows that curiositas (as understood by Cassian and Bernard of Clairvaux -- and by Augustine, when he worries that he spends to much time watching lizards catch flies) as a wandering from the soul's way from the route to God. MC makes the important point that while Bernard of Clairvaux considered certain dangerous uses of external images as instances of curiositas, "his Sermons on the Song of Songs are filled with figurative language that deliberately denatures the exterior world in order to evoke mental pictures by 'painting elaborately in the mind'." (85) In this sense, Bernard is no iconoclast, at least in any simple way. Indeed, proper mental picture-making is an important activity of the ascetic life: "The goal of meditation ... is to build oneself into a 'templum spiritualis.' And the temple into which one constructs oneself is richly decorated, completely like the white-washed, undecorated austerity of the stone oratory in which the Cistercians prayed." (86) And, if Bernard loves to decorate or ornament (ornare) the mind visually, John Cassian is something of a glutton for spiritual food: "It is fundamental to this commonplace that reading is food, thought is its digestion, cogitation is both rumination and a kind of cooking ('concoction')." (91) Thus, spiritual meditation is a transposition of the life of the body into the no less real processes of the mind. Remembering is like writing things down on wax tablets; the body of Christ is like a written parchment page (102); "For medieval cultures, implied in the very word recordari is an act of remembering not in Wordsworthian tranquillity, but by means of very strong emotions that both punctuated and wounded memory." (103) Reading, for Peter of Celle, is "a kind of walking through the contents of Scripture... Peter clearly thinks of matters in Genesis in terms of a map; reading it is for him a series of journeys, a sight-seeing pilgrimage." (109) For Romuald of Camaldoli, we must "fish" and "hunt" for spiritual understanding (112-113).

Chapter 3 deals with "the nature and function of mental images," and later with the "cognitive 'way-finding' function in rhetorical ductus". This chapter deals, then, with techniques and modes not of spiritual constancy, but of spiritual motion, which is a fundamental feature of the Platonic or Neoplatonic system, as Stephen Gersh showed so well several decades ago in his book on Proclus, Kinesis Akinetos. A Study of Spiritual Motion in the Philosophy of Proclus (Brill, 1973). MC deals with questions of spiritual movement not philosophically or abstractly, but practically and from the ground up, that "ground" being rhetorical technique and compelling visual material. Thus, her study of Alcuin starts with the ways in which the bodily senses carry messages derived from sensible things to the memory, where they are stored after being "translated" (in the rhetorical sense of troping astranslatio). This building of images that will enable the mind to sort, arrange and store knowledge and experience in the memory is a conscious and voluntary process. The passages about image-building that MC quotes from Alcuin are extremely lucid, but I found myself surprised to learn from MC how important mental images are to Augustine's spiritual life as well, especially since his writings are, themselves, never given to descriptions of material places, things or people, and since Augustine himself scorns the visual arts (painting, sculpture, theater) in his Soliloquia. And, in his De Musica, Augustine denies that the arts of poetry and music lie in the sounds and rhythms that actually we hear or read: rather, they lie in the mind that forms judgments about what we read or hear. Paradoxically, then, Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux are indifferent to representations of the exterior world, without being iconoclastic (though Augustine was summoned to nourish iconoclastic tendencies among the Carolingians, the Calvinists, and the Puritans); rather, they are addicted to mental images and rhetorical ornaments as vital to spiritual cognition.

The bulk of this chapter is devoted, then, to the study of rhetorical ornament as a system of mental image-building, and as we might expect, MC focuses on the exploitation of enargeia and ekphrasis by such poets as Prudentius, whose Psychomachia is above all, for MC, a "visible epic." But mnemonic ornaments are stock resources of many different kinds of writings, as well as of the actual medieval texts themselves, whether in illuminations or in marginal ornaments, as MC shows -- having done so earlier in The book of Memory. To my regret, MC only briefly mentions The Dream of the Rood, but she has prepared us well to grasp on our own how strongly that poem is related to the meditative tradition that she is describing in this book.

Chapter 4 deals with "visions" as "mental seeings," or phantasms that "summon up the emotional energies of oneself and one's audience" (172), and MC points to Hebrew and Christian prophets as important sources of images that compel us "remember" the dire future that they wish to evoke. The bedchamber, MC points out, is a privileged locus for the production of spiritual visions, and prostration is the favored state for doing so. This point brings to mind the pivotal moment of crisis described by Augustine (Conf. VIII. 11) when, just before his conversion, he is tormented with all too vivid memories of the filthy things he did (and still would like to do) with his past mistresses. What saves him is a vision of "the chaste dignity of continence, serene and joyous, but in no wanton fashion, virtuously alluring, so that I would come to her and hesitate no longer." This positive vision causes him to take up and read Scripture in the famous garden in Milan. What MC might also have emphasized, though, is Augustine's use of visions negatively, in the theological sense of that term, as we see so clearly in his famous "vision at Ostia, "where he and his mother Monica evoke images of created things that they promptly dismiss to progress step by step upward toward an ecstatic vision of God.

Chapter 4 consists mainly in a series of sub-chapters devoted to specific examples of "inventive vision," that is to say, instances where mental pictures serve to organize the process of meditation in the spiritual practices of medieval spirituals, among them Boethius, the ninth-century Benedictine abbot Heito of Reichenau (the author of the Vision of Wetti), and Gregory the Great, as author of The Life of Saint Benedict, Peter of Celle, Bede, Theodulf of Orleans, and Baudri of Bourgeuil, not all of whom are broadly known. This is very rich material, and its value is in the specificity of abundant details. These do not lend themselves to broad summaries here, other than to say that MC succeeds in making clear the extent to which mental pictures amount to an extraordinarily productive visual rhetoric, especially in the areas of inventio and memoria. All of these mini-essays form an valuable backdrop for the study of much great vernacular literature as well, including the Romance of the Rose, Dante's Vita Nuova and Divine Comedy, and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess, to give some examples. And later mystical writers such as Thomas a Kempis, Catherine of Siena and Theresa of Avila (to name only a few) avail themselves even more extravagantly of these same meditative resources.

Having foraged widely inside the cells, bedrooms and skulls of medieval monks, MC moves outside in chapter 5 to consider "ways in which these internal pictures were made external as well" (221), though, she makes it clear that she does not write as a historian of architecture, rather, as a scholar oxygenated by the study of literature and rhetoric. As such, she approaches examples of medieval architecture as concrete elaborations of architectural plans previously conceived as the spiritual visions of such leaders as St. Benedict or the Irish monk Malachy (as described by Bernard of Clairvaux). The archetypes underlying such visions "are the two great prophetic building visions of St. John and of Ezekiel, and the divine building plan dictated in a direct vision by God to Moses." (224) "Such ekphrastic pictures have the role in monastic rhetoric of the plan measured out by the angel for Ezekiel to hold in his memory, providing ways and places for the mental task of composing prayer." (228) So too, the well-known architectural picture known as the "plan of St. Gall" is not simply a map, but a "meditation machine". (229) MC considers in some detail the Scriptural foundation of monastic architectural pictures in Ezekiel, in which the "measuring of the Temple is an act of contrition and return" (232), and she stresses that Tabernacle-Temple images were not merely illustrations but mnemotechnical, meditational picturae (234). Reciprocally, imaginary buildings, as in the case of Richard of St. Victor's treatise on Ezekiel, draw on contemporary architectural style for their plans (239). So too, Hugh of St. Victor's pictura of Noah's ark functions as an elaborate rhetorical locus for spiritual invention. But such mental buildings can also be what MC calls "sort-of" buildings, that is, buildings that are neither fully elaborated nor stable. Such ekphrases may be architecturally tentative and indeterminate, yet spiritually potent as mnemotechnical devices. MC considers Augustine's description of the locus tabernaculi in his commentary on Psalm 41 as an example, and the passage tells us a great deal about the way Augustine must have understood the ways in which the faithful of his time were supposed to participate in the sacred spaces of the real basilicas being built during his time -- which he never described. This is a flow, a ductus of the soul toward God's all-transcending house (254). MC has done us a service to show to what extent Augustine's mental images counterbalance the extreme poverty of hi s descriptions of material places and things in his world. Bernard of Clairvaux, by contrast, was much more practical about making sure that his monasteries, built from the ground up, answered to the meditative requirements of the monastic communities in his order. Liturgy, MC shows, became the ceremonial pattern of spiritual ductus (266-8) regulating the movements of the faithful in the sacred space of the church.

The final concern of this book is not with mental images of buildings, but with monastic churches and cloisters themselves as "meditation machines" -- where memory is best disposed to go with the flow toward God.

Medieval culture was always a rhetorical culture, but it built on the classical foundations of rhetoric in ways that classical writers could not have anticipated. The forensic matrix of Ciceronian rhetoric was never lost, though in the eschatological perspective of the Church, the trial awaiting everyman was the Last Judgment. This resourceful and learned book shows us to what extent rhetorical invention and memory gave form to the spiritual aspirations, the discursive spaces and the social practices of monastic culture. MC has restricted her concerns to one aspect of medieval cognitive tradition. How much of what MC discusses in the monastic meditative tradition occurs elsewhere? A great deal, though other kinds of churches evince different responses from those who frequent them. For example, the apse of San Vitale, the octagonal Byzantine church at Ravenna, reminds us that we are not only visiting an imperial court where both Justinian and Theodora stand solemnly with their full retinues, but a heavenly court as well, with an imperial Christ reigning in the heaven above. With his right hand he passes the crown of martyrdom (via an angel) to Saint Vitalis, while with his left he holds a scroll -- the plan of plans -- as an angel passes a prototype of the very church we are in which we stand to the presiding bishop Ecclesius. Underneath the imperial Christ stands the throne of Ecclesius's episcopal successors, reminding us of exactly what he represents in the here and now. And of course, vernacular literature gave new and different life to the meditative memory, especially as its objects of veneration became false or imperious courtly ladies. One thinks rightaway of the ornate castle of artful love in the Romance of the Rose, of Troilus's steamy bedroom (and of Criseyde's empty palace "of which queynt is the light") or of the heavenly "temple" "with walls of glass" in the Empyrean of Dante's Paradiso in which Beatrice appears at the foot of Mary. MC's book explores a core of medieval culture whose premises and practices were broadly pervasive, and so scholars in many different fields will benefit from it.

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